Monday, October 24, 2011

2003 Nebula – THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon

It seems like one way to get the SFWA’s attention is to be an established sf writer (Moon had long-running sf and fantasy series under her belt), and then to step out of your comfort zone (this book is much more grounded in the present and tackles a serious issue of mental disability)

There are some books that I have a hard time writing a less-than-positive review for.  In this case, we have a daring novel that dives into some intriguing issues of bioethics, has a character with autism as a first person narrator, and is based in part on the author’s own experiences with an autistic child.  There’s hardly a sentiment here that I disagree with, and I’m very intrigued by the subject matter, but, unfortunately, those qualities alone don’t make for a great book.

We don’t get a lot of the details about the world, but it’s a few decades in the future.  There are mentions of global warming and economic disaster (though not until the latter half of the book) as well as biological advances that have brought about old sf canards like personality modification for dangerous criminals, therapies for serious medical conditions, and life extension treatments.  Our narrator, Lou Arrendale, was born autistic at the turn of the twentieth century before treatments were developed for the condition, though he is very high-functioning.  He analyzes data for a corporation with a team of other autistics, and he manages a social life with fencing classes and church.  He faces two major conflicts in the novel: 1) his dastardly boss, Mr. Crenshaw, wants to coerce all of the autistic employees into serving as guinea pigs for a new, highly invasive, autism therapy, and 2) he’s fallen in love with one of his fencing buddies, Marjorie, but another fencer, Don, resents this, and resents Lou in general.  They are fairly simple plotlines, but we get a lot of Lou’s different perspective on things.  This ranges from fascinating, as in the descriptions of how he sees and seeks patterns in his life, to mind-numbingly tedious, as every line of dialogue has to be analyzed by Lou to uncover the emotional content and decode non-literal speech (like metaphors).

This is the most basic problem with the novel.  It’s not long, but it became a trudge through the middle third for me as we go through the same elaborate routines again and again.  Hearing how fixed Lou’s environment has to be is really interesting the first time, but it gets old after a few dozen descriptions.  Wathcing Lou decode dialogue is intriguing the first time, but do we need it for EVERY. SINGLE. LINE?  In other words, the narration didn’t work for me.  Which is not to say it couldn’t have worked.  I hate to review by comparison, but another novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon, came out at about the same time and explored similar ideas.  In both novels, there is a narrator on the autism spectrum investigating a mystery.  Haddon’s book is brisk and the prose is elegant and quick-moving while still putting you inside the narrator’s head.  He also manages to show us how wrong the narrator is about the mystery of the dead dog without ever breaking format.  Moon’s book, on the other hand, can be plodding.  The mystery of who is sabotaging Lou’s car is painfully obvious to everyone – including Lou! – but then he is too nice and reserved to solve it.  And, she breaks format and slips into third-person omniscient at times for no internally consistent reason.  She blows a great chance to challenge the reader with a limited, unreliable narrator and dumbs the prose down in the process.

There are other issues as well.  The best characters are Lou’s autistic coworkers, but they don’t get nearly enough pagetime.  The other characters are two dimensional – Lou’s “normal” friends are truly good people with infinite patience and intelligence.  Lou’s enemies…well, I called them dastardly before, and that pretty much sums them up.  I’m sure that disabled people deal with antagonists on a day-to-day basis, but I think antagonism out of ignorance would be a lot more real, and interesting, then these diabolical nutjobs who really hate autistics to the point of doing very illegal things and risking everything to mess with one.  This also goes hand in hand with a lot of moralizing.  There are some interesting bioethics questions here, including the fundamental question of should we “cure” someone of a “disorder” that is the basis of their personality and identity?  Lou’s attempt to answer this question for himself is the best part of the book by far, though even that gets a bit repetitive.  But, it seems like we spend even more time on obvious issues of respect and understanding.  I agree with everything Moon is saying here…but I sure got tired of hearing about it.

The book has its moments, and the premise is strong, but the characters are too black and white, the prose is too repetitive, the pace is too slow (though the final two chapters move far too quickly through major events), and Moon fails her narrator by spelling things out too clearly.  I will say that it made me appreciate Flowers of Algernon even more.

Grade: B-

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